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Landmark case against Oregon over treatment of workers with disabilities ends

Litigants in a 10-year long legal case stand together in Judge John Acosta's courtroom at the federal courthouse in Portland. Left to right are Steven J. Schwartz, litigation director, Center for Public Representation; Emily Cooper, legal director, Disability Rights Oregon; Anna Keenan-Mudrick, executive director, Community Access Services; Gabrielle Guedon, executive director, Oregon Self-Advocacy Coalition; Tom Stenson, deputy legal director, Disability Rights Oregon; Justin Park, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, U.S. Department of Justice; and Jake Cornett, executive director, Disability Rights Oregon.
Disability Rights Oregon
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Litigants in a 10-year long legal case stand together in Judge John Acosta's courtroom at the federal courthouse in Portland. Left to right are Steven J. Schwartz, litigation director, Center for Public Representation; Emily Cooper, legal director, Disability Rights Oregon; Anna Keenan-Mudrick, executive director, Community Access Services; Gabrielle Guedon, executive director, Oregon Self-Advocacy Coalition; Tom Stenson, deputy legal director, Disability Rights Oregon; Justin Park, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, U.S. Department of Justice; and Jake Cornett, executive director, Disability Rights Oregon.

After a decade, landmark disability rights case Lane v. Brown closes. The case closed sheltered workshops and ensured Oregonians with disabilities would work in integrated workspaces and be compensated at the same rate as workers without disabilities.

All eyes are on Gabrielle Guedon as she approaches the witness stand at the federal courthouse in Portland. She swears in and sits next to U.S. Magistrate Judge John Acosta. Lawyers and state officials listen intently as she talks about her experiences finding work as a person with an intellectual disability.

In 2014, a government employment service office referred Guedon to a state-funded sheltered workshop — a segregated workspace for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities. There, she and her coworkers were isolated from workers without disabilities. She was paid a subminimum wage completing menial tasks such as stapling.

“I would go to the back area on the bench and actually cry at lunch, because it hurt so bad knowing that I was being told I was too disabled to work,” Guedon said.

Guedon’s testimony last Thursday came at the final hearing for a landmark disability rights case: Lane v. Brown. The federal lawsuit against the state of Oregon closed this month after 10 years of litigation.

When the plaintiffs in Lane v. Brown won, it ensured people with disabilities would be paid at the same rate as workers without disabilities, and that they would receive employment support from the state to find a job that suits them. Judge Acosta determined the state complied with a settlement agreement reached in 2015, ending a decadelong legal fight for employment rights for people with disabilities.

Sheltered workshops in Oregon

Sheltered workshops have existed in the United States for roughly a century.

Acacia McGuire Anderson, a special projects unit manager with the Oregon Department of Developmental Disabilities Services, stated in an email that Oregon originally used the sheltered workshop model to serve people with disabilities who previously lived in an institution.

“The theory behind a Sheltered Workshop was that it would be an opportunity for people with disabilities to learn work skills,” Anderson wrote, “There were concerns from people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, that they would not be adequately supported or successful working outside of a segregated setting.”

In Oregon, private businesses and Medicaid services were permitted to have spaces dedicated to workers with disabilities. These workers received state funded employment services that placed them in these sheltered workshops, where they were paid less than minimum wage. This model continues to be used in parts of the U.S. to this day. In Oregon, it led to a lawsuit against the state 10 years ago.

The case of Lane v. Brown

In 2012, Disability Rights Oregon, United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon and S.W. Washington, and multiple named plaintiffs sued the state for allegedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by segregating workers with disabilities. The suit argued the state was violating the ADA by funding sheltered workshops and paying workers with disabilities less than minimum wage. Guedon was one of the plaintiffs.

“I was actually pretty devastated,” she said. “I’d been told I was too disabled to work, many times, multiple times”

The parties drafted a settlement agreement in 2015 containing requirements the state needed to fulfill by 2022. The plaintiffs did not receive any money as part of the settlement, but the agreement would change the state’s approach to people with disabilities.

The new requirements affected two groups of people: those working in sheltered workshops at the time; and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities aged 14 to 24, who are transitioning to work or higher education.

The state needed to stop funding all sheltered workshops and provide career planning to over 1,000 workers who wanted to find other employment.

Furthermore, jobs offered to these workers needed to integrate employees with and without disabilities.

Transition-age people with disabilities, at the time the lawsuit was filed, were often trained to work in a sheltered workshop. But after the settlement, that training ended. Instead, under the agreement, the state’s Department of Developmental Disabilities Services and the Oregon Office of Vocational Rehabilitation Services were required to provide specialized job training and career planning services to people with disabilities who wanted to work.

Effects of the settlement agreement

Anderson, with Oregon Department of Developmental Disabilities Services, was in charge of ensuring the state was complying with the settlement terms. This meant making sure people were receiving the appropriate job services and training.

Additionally, the state was on a deadline to help 1,115 workshop employees obtain new jobs in an integrated setting by June 30 of this year.

According to Anderson, grants and federal funding including the COVID-19 relief money from the American Rescue Plan allowed the state to exceed the requirements outlined in the settlement. They completely shut down all sheltered workshops and helped 1,138 former workshop employees find other jobs, ahead of last month’s deadline.

Guedon was among those who got a new job. Employment services helped her find work as a dog daycare attendant. She also worked as an employment outreach specialist, and has been a peer mentor for the Oregon Self-Advocacy Coalition, a coalition of groups and people with disabilities in the state.

By the end of 2016, she accepted a job as the coalition’s executive director.

“We do a lot of things from holding our quarterly meetings and talking to state leaders to talking to legislators,” Guedon said, “We help out different organizations on training... we connect advocates to different opportunities to be able to advocate and be involved in their community.”

For Emily Cooper, legal director for Disability Rights Oregon, this means more than providing jobs for people.

“At the end of the day, what really matters is knowing that there are thousands of Oregonians now who see themselves in their work as having value, having equal value and that level of confidence and dignity and sense of self worth,” Cooper said.

After the case: maintaining support and building capacity

As the state carried out the terms laid out in the settlement, an independent reviewer tracked the state’s progress for the court. Nicole Jorwic, the independent reviewer for the case, found that by the end of the settlement period, the state complied with the requirements.

She said, “Overall my findings were that the state not only hit their numbers but put the systems in place to just continue to sustain the advances that they’ve made in expanding access to these services.”

Jorwic said that while the state carried out the settlement agreement quickly compared to other cases, there would be challenges in maintaining the systemic changes.

Funding also remains an issue, Anderson says, especially when looking at training job coaches and counselors.

“We want to be able to continue to advocate within the state legislature and the federal legislature to continue to fund these as professional positions,” Anderson said.

Cooper said her organization has identified three areas where DRO will keep watching because “the state is still struggling a little bit.”

To improve the quality of services, Cooper wants the state to provide adequate counselors to people seeking services, as well as enough job opportunities to those seeking employment. She also wants the state to provide specialized resources for people with multiple disabilities.

Guedon said this program, under the recently-approved agreement, helps people with disabilities live in the greater community and move the state away from supporting segregated institutions.

”This is a good step forward to continue to shut down those systems.”

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Jamie Diep